Puttanesca sauce

12 May

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First things first.

No, it is not a fact that puttanesca sauce was invented by the puttana who earned their livelihoods in Italy’s brothels around World War II. It’s possible, I suppose. But, then, what isn’t?

Except for its geographic lineage, that being Italy, the southern part most probably, nobody really knows the true origin of the sauce. Believe me, I’ve looked and read and asked around. There are theories, several of them, but that’s all they are.

Titillating as it may be the most widely accepted brothel theory is, at best, weak.

This marks the (merciful) end of our impossible history lesson of the puttanesca.

Besides, do you really care who first threw together the most intensely flavored quick sauce known to humankind?

I’m content being in the dark and just enjoying the sauce. Wherever it came from.

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A puttanesca begins, as so many good things do, with plenty of olive oil, garlic, anchovy and some hot pepper. Saute for a couple minutes until the garlic has softened.

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Add a 28- to 35-oz. can of tomatoes, 3/4 cups of pitted and halved olives (Gaeta olives are traditional but Kalamatas are easier for me to source and so that’s what is used here), two or three tablespoons of rinsed capers, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for as little as 20 minutes, or up to half an hour, and you are pretty much all done.

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Though tossing in a handful of chopped parsley before serving would not be such a terrible idea.

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It took way less time to cook, eat and clean up after this puttanesca than it did trying to figure out whose bright idea the whole thing was in the first place.

Puttanesca Sauce
Recipe

4 tablespoons or so of olive oil
3 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 dried hot pepper, crushed
4 anchovy fillets

2 to 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
3/4 cup pitted Gaeta or Kalamata olives, halved
1 28-oz. to 35-oz. can of good-quality tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan saute the olive oil, garlic, hot pepper and anchovies for around two  minutes.
Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, salt and pepper, stir and allow to simmer at medium heat for 20-30 minutes.

Kalamata olive bread

3 May

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I promise not to bore you. Fact, let me get straight to the point and move along. This is basically round two of the bread-making exercise that I posted here a few weeks back. Here is the link to that recipe, along with full instructions.

All I have done is turn the original Jim Lahey recipe into an olive bread. A really good olive bread, too.

Below is the original recipe, with olives added (in bold red lettering) at the point where they should be mixed into the dough. Again, the original link that I mentioned above offers step-by-step instruction, so refer to that and then simply add the olives.

That’s about it.

Good luck.

 

JIM LAHEY’S NO-KNEAD BREAD RECIPE

WITH OLIVES…WITH OLIVES…WITH OLIVES…

Ingredients

3 cups (400 grams) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons (8 grams) table salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) instant or other active dry yeast

1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool water (55 to 65 degrees F)

1 cup loosely chopped Kalamata olives (drained of brine)

Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour, for dusting

Equipment

A 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot

Preparation

1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the water AND OLIVES, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel, or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to 18 hours. This slow rise—fermentation—is the key to flavor.

2. When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface (a wooden or plastic cutting board is fine) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands (this is the developed gluten), and it will be quite loose and sticky—do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

3. Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which tends to stick and may leave lint in the dough) or a large cloth napkin on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about 1/4 inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2–5 1/2 quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution—the pot will be very hot.) Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.

Ricotta orange cookies

1 May

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This is gonna be a quickie.

See, I had a pound of fresh ricotta that needed to be used (yeah, I know, poor me!) and for some reason cookies came to mind. Don’t ask me why.

Anyhow, I searched around to get a general sense of proportions. Y’know, like how much flour would make sense for the amount of ricotta that I had on hand. Then I just kinda winged it.

Which is to say that I had no idea what I was doing. Not much of an idea anyway. And so should you decide to proceed with caution (or, gasp!, some personal knowledge of cookie baking), I will not be offended in the least.

Oh, the cookies turned out pretty well, I’d say. In no small part due to the orange that I decided to toss in late in the game.

Courage.

Ricotta orange cookies

Makes around 4 dozen cookies

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1 stick sweet butter, softened

1 pound ricotta, preferably fresh but not a deal breaker

Zest of one large orange (or two smaller ones)

1 tablespoon orange liqueur 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Using a mixer beat together the sugar and butter until fluffy, around 5 minutes or so.

Add ricotta, orange zest, liqueur, vanilla and eggs; mix until thoroughly blended.

Add the flour, baking powder and salt; mix until a dough forms. (Add some milk if dough appears dry.)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a tablespoon (or your fingers, as I did) drop balls of dough around 2 inches apart. Bake for around 25 minutes or until the cookies are lightly browned.

 

My best manicotti recipe

25 Apr

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This all began, as so many good things do, with a call to Aunt Anna in Queens. It was Easter Sunday morning and she was in her kitchen preparing dinner. I was at home here in Maine.

“What are you cooking anyway?” I asked after we’d been chatting for quite some time. “You never mentioned.”

“Right now, my meatballs,” Anna said a bit distractedly. “The manicotti I made yesterday. I’m just taking them out of the refrigerator now.”

And for days and days these were the only words that I could hear. It had been a while since I’d made manicotti. It was time.

A quick text to my friends Laura and Bob netted a nice tin of fresh ricotta from the excellent Lioni Latticini in New Jersey—and I was off and running. Thanks to my aunt.

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Thin crepes are the key to good manicotti, the thinner the better. That means the crepe mix has to be super light and so mixing it in a blender is best. (I’ve included the full list of ingredients at the end.) A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to cook the crepes. I keep melted butter on the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring out the mix for each crepe.

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To make thin crepes you must barely cover the pan’s surface with the mixture. We’re not talking pancakes here, we’re talking just-thicker-than-paper type stuff. After the mix is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won’t take long at all. (I pour the mix straight from the blender into the pan, by the way. That way I can add more milk to the mix as things thicken up, which they will.)

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Here’s what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds to finish the other side.

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This is about how thick you want your crepes to be. That’s a blue spatula I’m holding behind one of the crepes; you can see the color coming through, right? Nice and thin!

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These crepes can be piled on top of each other without sticking. And if you aren’t making the manicotti right away the crepes can be refrigerated for a couple days. I refrigerated these overnight, wrapped in a roll using wax paper.

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This is a pretty traditional filling, made with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella and such (again, the full list of ingredients is below).

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A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.

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Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, then line the manicotti up, like so.

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Add more sauce on top, cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after 30 minutes and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so.

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These manicotti are super light and very delicate—a real favorite around here, in fact.

The only thing that could have made them better this time would be to share them with the woman who put the idea into my head in the first place. Hopefully it won’t be too very long before we’re able to see each other again.

Manicotti Recipe

Makes at least two dozen manicotti, likely more than that

For the crepe

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

2 1/2 cups milk to start (more as needed)

Pinch of salt

Mix ingredients together in a blender until fully incorporated. It should be the consistency of cream, NOT pancake batter. Add milk and blend more along the way if the mix thickens, which it will.

For the filling

2 lbs ricotta, preferably fresh

1 lb fresh mozzarella

1 egg

1/3 cup grated cheese (I use a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino)

Pinch of nutmeg (though a couple pinches is better)

Salt and pepper to taste

Empty ricotta into a large bowl. Grate the mozzarella into the same bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If very stiff add a little milk to soften a bit.

It’s the salt, stupid

18 Apr

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I am about to boil some pasta.

Hell no, that is not a lot of salt.

Don’t ask me how much salt I use to boil pasta either, because I couldn’t tell you. If you’re really that curious then swing by the house one of these days and measure the capacity of the palm of my left hand. That’s my left hand right there, see, and some of the pile of salt it is holding has already escaped into the water.

Look, it makes no difference to me how much salt you use in your pasta water. As long as you are not serving the finished product to me. If you are serving it to me and you are not using a big old pile of salt in the water, then I am afraid we are going to have ourselves a problem.

I may eat your ill-prepared pasta, out of friendship, or good-mannered civility. But I am not going to like it.

Chill, all right. I’m only being straight with you.

Some years back I made the mistake of allowing a couple of dinner guests, aquaintances really, to observe while I prepared a simple pasta dish from start to finish. When it came time to getting the water going one of them actually gasped at seeing the amount of salt in my hand.

“Oh my God, you’re not actually going to use all that, are you?” she huffed. “Please, tell me you aren’t.”

I paused, but only for a nanosecond.

“Uh,” I said emptying my usual palm’s worth into the pot. “Of course I am.”

Since then, and to avoid such conflicts from recurring, I have made certain to pre-salt pasta water whenever unfamiliar guests will be arriving for dinner. I know, I know. It’s best to add the salt after the water has boiled, blah blah. But I am not a man who sweats that type of detail.

There are two reasons why pasta water must be well salted. The most obvious one is that this flavors the pasta itself, as it will absorb the salted water during boiling. This is crucially important because otherwise the pasta will be bland bland bland. I don’t care how much flavor your sauce has; it won’t do a thing to make the actual pasta taste good.

The other reason is that pasta water is an ingredient all by itself. More often than not some of it is added to the hot pan where a sauce and a pasta are mixed together in final preparation. If the water doesn’t have any flavor then all you’re doing by adding it is diluting the flavor of the entire dish.

And why would you want to do that?

Beginner’s luck

13 Apr

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a baker. Never have been. Never tried to be.

If you thought that my standards ran high for pastas, I’ve got news for you: I’m way more obsessive about bread. Bakers, good ones, are wizards in my book. I have never before seriously considered loitering on their magnificent, magical turf.

Until now.

You are looking at the first loaf of bread that I have baked in my entire life. And all it took was a weeks-long home quarantine in the middle of a global pandemic to make it happen.

I had some help. The recipe is Jim Lahey’s, he of the very fine Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. (Here is a link to the recipe, though it is also reprinted below.) Further assistance was provided by two people who have for a decade or so prodded me (sometimes mercilessly) to give bread baking a try, they being “Beth Queen of Bakers” and “My Pain in the Ass Friend Tom.” Via phone, text and email these two old friends were with me the entire way. And I thank them.

So, let’s get started, shall we.

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In a large bowl mix together 3 cups bread flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons table salt and 1/4 teaspoon instant or other active dry yeast. (I upped the yeast to a little less than 1/2 teaspoon, which is explained below.)

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Add 1 1/3 cups cool water and quickly mix with your hands or a wooden spoon. The dough should be very wet and sticky; if it isn’t add a little more water. Then cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for 12-18 hours at around 72 degrees F. (A couple things: We don’t keep our house that warm overnight, which is why Beth and Tom suggested upping the yeast a little bit. I also let the dough sit for a full 24 hours, as I was advised that a longer rise might add to the finished product’s flavor.)

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This is how the dough looked after 24 hours. Still very moist, and bubbly.

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Next thing to do is dust a work surface with flour and gently remove the dough from the bowl and onto the work area.

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Then sprinkle some more flour on top and gently bring things into a round form.

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Like so.

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Cover the dough with a cotton or linen towel and let sit an hour or two until the dough has almost doubled in size (I gave it 2 1/2 hours). Around 30 minutes before the end of this rise preheat your oven to 475 degrees F and warm a 4 1/2-quart covered dutch oven inside the oven.

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Carefully remove the heated dutch oven from the oven, remove its cover, and gently place the dough inside. Then replace the cover and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the cover and continue baking for another 15-30 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown.

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Fifteen minutes is all this took.

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Remove the bread from the dutch oven and let it completely cool on a rack before cutting it open.

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I don’t say this to brag. Really, I don’t. Beginner’s luck turned out to be awfully kind to me. This bread is awesome. Crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and the flavor is absolutely perfect.

I’m (almost) speechless.

EPILOGUE

You may be wondering whether all-purpose flour can be substituted for bread flour. I know I did. And so I decided to give it a try. I did everything exactly the same except for swapping out the flour.

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Here’s the result. The bread was just as crisp on the outside, but not quite as chewy inside. Still a really nice loaf that I would totally make again.

If I were a baker, that is.

 

JIM LAHEY’S NO-KNEAD BREAD RECIPE

Ingredients

3 cups (400 grams) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons (8 grams) table salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) instant or other active dry yeast

1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool water (55 to 65 degrees F)

Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour, for dusting

Equipment

A 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot

Preparation

1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the water and, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to 18 hours. This slow rise—fermentation—is the key to flavor.

2. When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface (a wooden or plastic cutting board is fine) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands (this is the developed gluten), and it will be quite loose and sticky—do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

3. Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which tends to stick and may leave lint in the dough) or a large cloth napkin on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about 1/4 inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2–5 1/2 quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution—the pot will be very hot.) Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.

You gotta look sharp

9 Apr

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Easter Sunday in 1960s East New York, Brooklyn, was a day when little Roman-Catholic boys like me (r.) were made to look like men.

This was not our doing but our mothers’.

One by one these well-meaning women would drag their sons to the discount shopping district on Pitkin Avenue, a short walk from the apartment buildings where we lived. There the local shopkeepers would fit us boys into new sports coats and trousers, dress shirts and neckties, sometimes even shiny new leather shoes.

This annual ritual was very important to our church-going mothers; I know it was to mine.

I have never grasped how the grownups in our neighborhood could justify such an elaborate expense for so fleeting a moment. Once Easter had come and gone so went the fancy new duds, tossed into a dark closet or shoved under a boxspring, rarely if ever to be worn or seen again. The hard-earned monies spent to acquire the clothing simply vanished into thin (though, I should hope, this being a religious holiday, blessed) air.

The most confounding items in our Easter wardrobe, at least to me, were the hats, those fedoras and pork pies, trilbies and homburgs that our mothers would place upon our soft little noggins with purpose and, yes, pride.

These were guaranteed one-time-use-only deals, these hats. What eight year old decides to throw on a fedora when not coerced by an encouraging, God-fearing parent?

[Before going further I should mention here that by hat I mean, well, hat. Baseball caps certainly are not hats; that’s why they’re called caps and not hats. Newsboy and other types of caps, far more stylish and wholly more respectable than the baseball variety, also are not hats. I’m glad we cleared that up, aren’t you?]

Hat wearing takes a voluntary turn only after a boy becomes a man. And even then it’s a crapshoot. I haven’t been a churchgoer since I was old enough to make my own decision, and so Easter headgear hasn’t been in play for decades.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I voluntarily started to wear a hat, the first being a brown felt fedora from the famed Borsalino of Italy. The hat was a gift from my swell wife Joan, and is still very much in use today. She says that in it I appear more distinguished than is actually so.

My hat collection has grown quite substantially since then, moreso than makes good sense in the place where I live. Maine is more rugged and countrified, more casual than prime hat-wearing cities like New York; a fine felt fedora can often be out of place, if not downright ill advised. Hell, there are some places and events up here that I’d sooner wear a dress.

My father did not have a hat collection. He wore an old fedora on Easter Sunday and for other special occasions, but strictly out of utility and obligation, not by style choice. He was a man who might have benefited from regular hat wearing, as he was just shy of a cue ball on the balding scale. Some fine felt might have looked rather swell on him, and could certainly have helped to keep his bald head warm in winter.

I do not need a hat to keep my head warm, not even here in the wilds of Maine. I have my mother’s hair. Lots and lots and lots of it.

I also inherited from her a desire to, on occasion at least, and with the aid of a very fine hat, look sharp. And so this Easter Sunday, as every other, I will tip one of my finest fedoras to her memory.